not in our stars, but in ourselves
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should explain what I mean by “body genres.” And really, it’s not what I mean: it’s what Linda Williams, one of the rare genius film theorists, means. I am going to paraphrase, and badly, but the general idea is this: three film genres are body genres. They are pornography, horror, and melodrama. Any film, from any one of these genres, is intended to elicit a physical – sometimes visceral – response from the viewer. Pornography is intended to arouse, and perhaps even to lead to release. Horror is intended to frighten, to make the spectator scream or jump or hold her hands up to her eyes. Melodrama is intended to induce torrents of tears. They are processes that take place without intellect or analysis getting in the way; you don’t have to “get the joke” for a scene to have its intended effect on you. You don’t think. You react.
Ah, hell, read Williams herself if you want a better idea. She’s worth the trouble, I promise.
Anyway, two out of three body genres aren’t to my taste. Any time I’ve seen pornography, my reaction has been either laughter or Maude Lebowski-style dismissal (“the plot is ludicrous, of course”). Horror and I do not get along. It usually has its intended effect, and more, and i cannot deal with that. I can’t help imagining – almost reliving – what it must feel like to be hung by the spine on a meathook, to be terrorized by three masked psychos who showed up “because you were home,” to be tortured almost to death but left alive long enough to illustrate the sin of sloth. I don’t know if empathetic people can and do watch horror movies without any particular problem, but let me tell you: this particular empath just can’t do it.
What about the third? Ah, yes, the Hollywood melodrama. Beautiful people, lots of heartbreak, strangely expressionistic mises-en-scène and scores. They’re the silliest, tritest stories you can imagine – and yet, after you watch, you feel quite genuinely that your insides have been torn apart.
I was curious. Lately, a combination of too much work and not enough play (so to speak) has left me feeling dead and hollow inside. There’s enough in my life that I should be feeling things acutely, all the time, but I found myself regarding emotional setbacks and triumphs with an impassive stare. Was I finally growing up? And by growing up, I mean calcifying, hardening, turning into a withered shell of the too easily affected girl I’d once been? And so I decided to watch Imitation of Life (1959), directed by the king of melodramas, Douglas Sirk. The last time I’d watched it, I was reduced (as intended) to torrents of tears.
For the uninitiated: Imitation of Life is the story of two mother-daughter pairs. There’s Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee). There’s also Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). The Merediths are white, blonde, blue eyed. Annie is visibly African-American, but Sarah Jane’s skin is light enough that she can – and wants to – “pass” for white. Much of the film’s two-plus hours revolve around Lora and her dopey dreams (eventually realized) of being a great Broadway star, and her utterly uninteresting love affair with wooden Steve (Dan O’Herlihy). The real point, however, is the story of the Johnsons. Sarah Jane is utterly hostile to being African-American, because she knows it leads only to degradation, servility, misery. It means living only in back rooms. It means using different water fountains. It means compromising at every step to get even the slightest hint of stability. It means living in a world that denies her humanity. Annie is not willing, or perhaps able, to fight. She wants Sarah Jane to grow up proud of who she is, nevertheless, and not to hide anything from the world. She believes that she will be rewarded with glory when she dies, and that’s the only thing – the ONLY thing – she has to hope for.
I am the wrong person to ask about black people’s nightmarish status throughout American history. I won’t bother getting up on my soapbox, because I have nothing useful to say on that particular topic in general. In this particular instance, perhaps I still don’t have anything to say, but I will say this: towards the end, when Annie goes to visit Sarah Jane after the latter has run away to work as a “white” showgirl; when Annie is ailing and quietly proving that she’s been the wisest and best of anyone all along; when Mahalia Jackson belts the living daylights out of “Trouble of the World“; when dozens of men take off their hats to honor a woman they didn’t know (or only barely); when Sarah Jane clutches all those white flowers (all dead, but imitations of life) and sobs bitterly; well, my dear readers, I just lost it. First it was just misty eyes. Then it was quiet crying. Then it was sobbing. Then it was an absolute flood of genuine sadness, flowing straight from my awful soul, bringing with it detritus from every other thing hiding in my conscious and unconscious mind.
In short: it works. Imitation of Life makes me sob like a baby every time, and I would be seriously concerned if it didn’t do the same to you.